Exclusive Interview with Thelma Houston, Superstar Drummer James Gadson and Grammy-Winning Songwriter/Producer Jimmy Webb
by Michael Menachem
The allure of a great disco song is an infectious arrangement, lively instrumentation and a stellar vocal to take you away into the stratosphere – such as the inescapable “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Thelma Houston.
After years of record deals on Capitol Records with The Art Reynolds Singers and 1969 debut album Sunshower produced by the legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb on ABC-Dunhill, Thelma Houston simply didn’t have a hit. Even with a record deal on Motown Records’ west coast venture, MoWest none of her songs were taking off. It was not at all due to a lack of talent. It wasn’t until Motown’s Head of A&R Suzanne de Passe took notice of Teddy Pendergrass’ vocal on the initial version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. While observing Thelma’s talent during a Las Vegas performance, de Passe was impressed and convinced that a female voice was needed for the song to be a hit – and that voice belonged to Thelma Houston.
The production went into high gear, taking off from where producers Gamble & Huff left off with the original 1975 Pendergrass version with more frantic emotion, prominent instrumentation across bass, drums, strings and horn sections and one once-in-a-lifetime vocal from Thelma Houston that has become her signature song. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1977 as well as achieving #1 status on the Hot R&B Songs and Dance Songs charts. To put the song’s success into perspective, it joined other #1s that year including “Dancing Queen” by ABBA, “Hotel California” by the Eagles and “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder.
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” earned Thelma Houston a Grammy in 1978, victorious over fellow nominees Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, Dorothy Moore and Diana Ross. Thelma actually didn’t attend the Grammy telecast that year simply because she didn’t think she was going to win. At the 1975 ceremony, Houston was nominated for the first time for her minor 1974 hit “You’ve Been Doing Wrong For So Long”, but ultimately that award went to Aretha Franklin for “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” – closing out an eight-year winning streak for the Queen of Soul. Thelma just didn’t think she would beat out Aretha Franklin.
“I had been nominated before, and I was up against Aretha and it was in New York”, said Houston. “I was very excited to be there and I was excited to be nominated but then I thought, OK, I didn’t win that one, so now I don’t know if I can sit there. What is the lesson to everyone? When you’re nominated for something especially something like that – Go! Cause you don’t want to feel like a fool when you win and people ask you years later where were you – oh I was at home scrubbing my kitchen floor”.
Producer Hal Davis, known for early hits with the Jackson 5 like “I’ll Be There” and “Dancing Machine” as well as “Can I” by Eddie Kendricks worked on the 1976 Diana Ross #1 “Love Hangover” with a seriously talented bunch of musicians at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles. Davis employed many of the same musicians from that recording for “Don’t Leave Me This Way” including arranger and guitarist Art Wright, Henry Davis on bass, James Gadson on drums, adding John Barnes on piano as well as sisters Maxine and Julia Waters on background vocals.
Legendary drummer James Gadson, who recorded on Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” and “Use Me” as well as Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real” and many other hits recalls the day of the “Don’t Leave Me This Way” session. “They had what they called three-hour recording sessions – if you cut over five minutes of disco then that was a session and that’s the way the union did it”, said Gadson. “So we were in a vamp and you can hear the door brrr-oom slamming – he was stopping the session, I remember that. It became a hit record and so that was great, I was so happy for her”.
Clocking in at five minutes and forty-two seconds, the track simply needed the length to breath and make its statement. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” will stand the test of time, with its precise blending of instrumentation and Thelma’s powerful vocal and charisma. Her yearning vocal beckons the listener to the dancefloor. Arthur Wright’s arranging framed each component perfectly, with contrasts of graceful vocals and violins with a thumping bassline, pulsing drums and mischievous horns, leading up to Thelma’s master class in singing. It’s a song layered in playful call-and-response between the vocals and the instrumentation – personifying a heated, embattled conversation between lovers on the dancefloor.
Like many of the popular disco tunes of the era, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was a part of the counterculture to 60s rock music, consumed largely by African American and Latino communities and embraced by the gay community before making its way to the mainstream. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was devoured by clubgoers and radio listeners around the world and its cultural relevance lives well beyond the Studio 54s of the world, appealing to the masses for its genderless lyrics while also remaining an anthem in the fight against AIDS. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” further lives on in the cultural zeitgeist, covered numerous times across many genres in the style of Thelma’s version. British pop duo The Communards most notably released their #1 UK version in 1986. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” made a splash in filmmaker Baz Lurmann’s Moulin Rouge! mash-up “Elephant Love Medley” sung by Ewan McGregor, West End and Broadway musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, it was covered by Cher during her Las Vegas residency, recorded by The Weather Girls, a live bluegrass version exists by Alison Krauss & The Jerry Douglas Band, and the track has been sampled by French multi-instrumentalist FKJ and most recently in 2017 by Dutch DJ Bakermat.
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” is a Song That Changed Music and it will remain one of the greatest disco and dance songs of all time, reaching international success and crossing musical and cultural borders. On VH1’s 100 Greatest Dance Songs it stands at Number 2, just shy of “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor.